Best known for the multi-million selling series The Babysitters’ Club Ann M Martin chose a very different sort of story to tell in her new novel How to Look for a Lost Dog. The book’s central character and narrator is Rose, a young girl with a diagnosis of high-functioning autism. Rose lives in a small US town with her father and has various supports that help her bring the order she needs into her life: lists of homonyms, prime numbers and her dog Rain. When Rain goes missing in a storm, things become very difficult indeed for Rose. How did Ann come to write the story and where did the idea for Rose come from?
‘The first part of the story came from simply hearing Rose’s voice in my head’ says Ann, ‘I wasn’t even sure at first that she was a girl on the autism spectrum, I was just hearing a quirky girl who had quirky interests – homophones and prime numbers and things.’ When she mentioned to her editors that she was thinking about writing about a girl on the autism spectrum they suggested instead that she ‘write a dog book’. But Ann who had just written two books about dogs wasn’t terribly keen on doing another one. This was just a few years after hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans and Ann had also been talking to her editors about a book about a superstorm, ‘at some point all three ideas began to come together and that was the very beginning. When I started thinking about another book with a dog in it I realised right away that this dog would be Rose’s emotional connection to the world so that it would be especially devastating for her when she gets separated from Rain.’
Did she feel a particular responsibility to write about autism, or a particular pressure to make sure the representation was correct? ‘I certainly wanted to be careful. While I don’t think I felt like I needed to tell the story, it was definitely a story I wanted to tell. I’d worked many years ago with kids who’d been diagnosed with autism and I’d always remained interested in it. A friend of mine is the co-founder of a wonderful school in Kingston New York for kids on the spectrum and I had talked with her quite a bit. I certainly wanted to be careful not only about how Rose was presented but about how I described her classroom experiences and that was where my friend was really helpful: I was able to go to her school and observe classes so that I could see the interaction between teachers and kids, and the students with each other. My friend also read the first version of the manuscript and I felt much more comfortable after that.’ A very careful plotter Ann found that she’d written too many school scenes with Rose and ended up having to cut a lot of these.
How then have readers responded to the book? ‘It has been out a little over a year in America and I’ve had a wonderful response. I’ve heard from almost as many adults as I have from kids, mostly adults who have kids of their own who are on the spectrum, or teachers and it’s been very positive. I’ve heard also from kids who are on the spectrum, one girl said specifically that she’d never read a book with a main character who was just like herself. That was lovely.’
Shortly before we met, Ann had taken part in the Radio Two Book Club with Simon Mayo. The programme invites children to read and review the book and while their consensus was that Rose was annoying as a character Ann was very pleased that they’d also noticed the change in Rose as the story develops: ‘That was something I hoped readers would get from the book. Rose is quirky, she may not be like anyone else you know and maybe she is annoying, but she was finding her own way to change without losing anything of herself because those quirks are what makes her who she is.’
Rose has an unusual and very particular view of the world, telling her story exactly as it happens, though readers will infer much more from her accounts of events than Rose herself understands. It’s clear to readers for example that her father and her uncle’s childhoods were bleak, with physical abuse a fairly regular occurrence. Rose reports this in a typically matter of fact manner. Was that difficult to write? ‘Interestingly that aspect of writing for Rose came fairly easily,’ says Ann, ‘The way she presents things, almost holding things at arms’ length but still managing to describe them maybe makes them even more powerful because you can see that these are very emotional things that she’s writing about and yet she’s not reacting to them particularly strongly.’
There’s one particularly shocking emotional moment in the book when we learn that Rose’s father has lied to her about something of huge importance. Ann sees the relationship between Rose and her father as one of the key elements of the book. He is, as the Books for Keeps review says, a threatening presence in the book, short-tempered with Rose and impatient with her strange habits. ‘What I wanted with that revelation was to have another opportunity to present Wes as not the right father for Rose but a father who did have good intentions,’ says Ann. ‘He had a reason for telling Rose what he had told her, or at least Rose and her uncle think that he did. He didn’t do it out of spite or meanness. That was something that I felt was very important to do. I actually felt that the relationship between Rose and her father was the most difficult one for me in writing the story. I found it much easier to write about Rose’s relationship with her uncle, or the relationship between the two brothers – everything came more easily than Rose and her father and I did want to make it very clear that he was absolutely the wrong parent for Rose but he wasn’t a bad person.’
How does writing a one off novel, like How to Look for a Lost Dog, compare to writing a series, like The Babysitters’ Club? ‘There are certainly benefits and drawbacks to both as far as I can see. The schedule for writing a series like the The Babysitters’ Club was grueling – I could do it then when I was 30 I don’t think I could do it now! On the other hand when I’d finished each book I didn’t have to say goodbye to the characters, creating each next book was easier because the characters were there, the setting was there and I usually had plot points to draw on from the previous book. But my favourite thing about any book is creating the characters so each time I start a new story like that of Rose and Rain I get to create the characters. Often I think of the character first like I did with Rose before I even have the story to go with her or him. I didn’t find it hard to go from one form to the other, I think I just faced different kinds of challenges and I still do both things.’
Is she tempted to write more about Rose? ‘I’m not sure’, she says, ‘Maybe. Certainly she’s one of the characters I’ve created who has stayed with me more than any of the others but I don’t have a good idea for a story yet. I have been thinking about her life with her uncle, however…’
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
How to Look for a Lost Dog is published by Usborne, 978-1474906470, £6.99 pbk.